A Swiss company with major operations in West Chester illegally tested its bone cement on about 200 people, three of whom died, according to a 52-count indictment issued yesterday by the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia.
Synthes Inc., a producer of orthopedic products that employs about 1,400 in Chester County, did not tell any of the patients that they were participating in experimental surgeries, the indictment said.
Federal prosecutors also accused Synthes executives of lying to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about whether they had tested the product for uses that the agency had not approved.
Particularly striking were allegations that the company's CEO was directly involved in the decisions.
The FDA had approved Norian XR to fill bony voids or defects in some parts of the body, but not in the spine. The agency insisted that Synthes conduct clinical trials, which are lengthy and expensive and require FDA oversight, if it wanted to expand the uses of Norian XR to treat spinal fractures.
But, a company executive identified in the indictment as 'Person No. 7' decided not to conduct clinical trials. Instead, the person said the company should 'get a few sites to perform 60-80 procedures and help them publish their clinical results,' according to the indictment.
The report never explicitly identifies 'Person No. 7,' but says he was the chief executive officer and a large shareholder. A company spokesman identified Hansjörg Wyss as the CEO while the tests occurred.
Forbes Magazine lists Wyss, a Swiss citizen, as a West Chester resident and the Philadelphia area's wealthiest person, with a net worth of $5.7 billion. Last year, Wyss gave the largest amount from a single source in Harvard University's history when he donated $125 million to create a bio-engineering institute.
Wyss owns about 40 percent of outstanding Synthes stock. The company, which had about $805 million in first-quarter sales this year, specializes in orthopedic devices, including plates and screws.
The Inquirer article included more detail about how the company allegedly disregarded risks to patients as it pushed the surgeons to try Norian XR on them, without disclosing that its use was experimental,
Instead of conducting trials with FDA oversight, Synthes executives convinced about 50 surgeons to test Norian XR in people with spinal fractures. Synthes sales representatives often were in the operating room during the surgeries, including those where patients died, prosecutors said.
When company executives began these surgical tests in 2002, they knew that Norian XR caused blood clots in test tubes and that clots became lodged in the lungs in tests with pigs, the indictment said.
Synthes continued the experimental surgeries even after two patients died on the operating table, prosecutors said. The company stopped the tests after a third patient died in January 2004.
Again, it seems that the current leaders of health care all too often put more priority on personal profits than on protecting patients' health and safety. So instead of all the talk about reforming how health care is financed, maybe the conversation should be about reforming how health care is lead, and finding ethical, honest leaders who put patients' welfare ahead of their own wealth.